Divorce is a serious matter. Depending on the particular family circumstances, there may be a variety of important and challenging decisions to make that will have a long-term impact on the parties involved. In most cases, spouses will be expected to address issues such as child custody and visitation, spousal support (or alimony), property and debt division, and child support, among other things. Because of the nature of divorce, parties often do not agree on even the most fundamental decisions. In order to sort through the myriad issues that may arise throughout the proceedings, and to ensure that your rights are fully protected every step of the way, you are encouraged to contact an experienced Maryland family law attorney as soon as possible.
Child custody issues have a tendency to bring up very strong emotions on behalf of both parents. And if there has been an allegation of child abuse or neglect in a child custody or visitation proceeding, a court will step in to protect the best interests of the child. Because of the seriousness of such allegations, Section 9-101 of the Maryland Family Law code sets forth specific provisions to guide courts that must deal with this disturbing issue. Specifically, the first part of the relevant statute provides that, if a court has “reasonable grounds” to believe that a child has been abused or neglected by a party to the proceeding, the court must determine whether the abuse or neglect is likely to occur if that person is granted custody or visitation rights.
The second part of the statute provides (in pertinent part) that, unless the court concludes that there is no likelihood of further child abuse or neglect by the party, the court shall deny that person any custody or visitation rights. However, the court has the authority to approve a supervised visitation arrangement under certain circumstances. In a recent child custody and visitation case, Michael Gerald D. v. Roseann B., the Maryland court of special appeals was asked to review whether the lower court applied the appropriate standard in determining that the father had abused his daughter, by “a preponderance of the evidence.” In so finding, the court awarded custody of the child to her mother and denied the father any rights to visitation.
The father appealed, arguing that the court should have reviewed the underlying abuse claims by a “clear and convincing evidence” standard instead. The court of special appeals reviewed the underlying facts in the case, the applicable statutory language mentioned above, and prevailing Maryland case law. In an earlier decision, the Maryland Court of Appeals held that, with regard to the phrase “reasonable grounds to believe” that the parent seeking custody or visitation has abused or neglected a child, the appropriate standard is “a preponderance of the evidence.”
Therefore, the court declined to adopt the father’s enhanced burden of proof in instances where the lower court denies visitation between a parent and child. The court affirmed the decision, concluding that the lower court did not err in applying the preponderance of the evidence standard when it decided that it had reasonable grounds to believe that father had abused his daughter.
While this is not the typical child custody and visitation case, it certainly illustrates the difficult, sensitive, and complex nature of issues that can arise in a divorce proceeding. To carefully and fully protect your rights in any family law matter, it is important to consult with an experienced attorney as early in the process as possible. Parties anticipating a divorce are encouraged to contact Anthony A. Fatemi, an experienced Maryland family law attorney, for representation and legal guidance. Mr. Fatemi can be reached at (888) 519-2801 or (301) 519-2801.
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